Luxury Travel Advisor is just back from Cuba and we found it’s a fascinating island that’s so much more than its troubled history lets on. It has a burgeoning artistic culture and culinary scene that are begging to be discovered on a global scale. As for the locals? They are extremely welcoming and very friendly. We visited with destination management company Cultural Cuba for a weekend jaunt with owner and founder David Lee that was packed with history, culture, art, food, music and, of course, a fair share of rum and a cigar or two.
Before diving further into our trip, some housekeeping: Cuba is open for business. In June, the U.S. ended group people-to-people travel to Cuba, which effectively ended cruises to the island and a large portion of tours that operated there. However, the support for the Cuban people requirement still allows for Americans to visit Cuba with companies like Cultural Cuba. In addition, the United States in November banned all commercials flights to cities in Cuba other than Havana, effective December 10, 2019; however, nearly 100 percent of American visitors to Cuba fly into Havana, anyway. (During our visit, our wonderful guide Alain Rubio explained that this ban mostly hurts Cubans and Cuban Americans who travel between the U.S. and cities in Cuba’s east. Santiago de Cuba, for instance, is about 12 hours driving from Havana, and travelers must now spend more money just to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba.)
Now, without further ado…
What to Do
Havana is the top destination in Cuba: It is the capital and home to the greatest concentration of arts, restaurants and attractions.
A walking tour of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is a great way to explore the city’s history. Along with our Cultural Cuba guide, we visited the neighborhood’s four major plazas (our favorite was Plaza Vieja for its pastel-colored buildings), while also seeing some impressive architecture dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.
On our tour through Old Havana, we stopped at El Taller Experimental de Grafica (Experimental Graphics Workshop). Inside, you can spot old printing machines and artists at work, plus hundreds of their works on display and ready for purchase. Fun Fact: Printmaking is an important traditional art form in Cuba and the studio has helped preserve it, cranking out etchings, lithographs, collagraphs and woodcuts since 1962.
Another art-centric (and Cultural Cuba-exclusive) experience we enjoyed was a visit to Amos, a photography studio operated by Ramses Batista and Alex Castro (Fidel’s son). The duo has a brand-new studio (we were among the first to see it!), where a collection of their photographs are on display — including some eye-opening photos taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. What’s Neat: Batista and Castro offer complimentary workshops for Cubans, teaching them how to use professional-grade camera equipment, in addition to painting, sculpture, drawing and guitar classes. Should you want a private lesson, Cultural Cuba can make it happen (they can also arrange a “photo safari,” where guests can travel with Batista outside of the city where he will set up shots). Good to know: Both Batista and Castro are very welcoming and knowledgeable (although the latter, a bit shy about his English, is the less outgoing of the two).
Plaza Vieja in Old Havana has pastel-colored buildings and gives an insight into the city’s history. // Photo: Matt Turner
Continuing the art theme, we visited Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), a contemporary gallery in a former cooking oil factory and one of Havana’s hottest nightlife spots. On any given day, visitors can enjoy art installations, live music, pop-up fashion stalls, performance art, indie cinema and more. The massive space comprises what seems like dozens of rooms (called naves), hallways and semi-hidden staircases. Some rooms during our visit had paintings, drawings, photos and even flat-screen TVs with video performances hanging on the walls; others had live music and movies playing on large screens — and all throughout the space are bars, cafés and even a full-service, fine dining restaurant.
Tip: Make your visit to Fábrica de Arte a full evening event, as we did. Start off at the restaurant Tierra, which has dishes from all over the world. Our favorite was the Bife à Portuguesa, marinated with garlic, salt and pepper, fried in olive oil, served in a wine reduction and covered in crunchy serrano ham. The Thai-Style Chicken was also a hit, as was the Frozen Lemon Tart for dessert.
If you’re still looking to take in even more arts, head over to Fucina Des Artistas, a private studio and gallery headed by artists Andy Llanes and Roldan Lauzan.
One experience that our whole group enjoyed — perhaps more than any other — was the private rum and cigar tasting with Damian Domínguez Pérez, brand ambassador / sommelier for Havana Club Rum, at El Museo del Ron (Museum of Rum). Damian led the group through, first, a tasting of Havana Club Cohíba Atmospheres Unión, a rum that is sourced from the same region as the tobacco used in Cohíba cigars. Then, with some instruction, Damian helped the group quickly go from cigar novices to aficionados, while even teaching us a neat party trick, infusing cigar smoke into the rum. Tastings at the museum are done in a private room, which isn’t open to the public.
Now that you have learned about two of Cuba’s staples it’s time to hit the dance floor and learn about Cuba’s traditional dance: Salsa. To get the full experience, Cultural Cuba arranges private, one-on-one salsa lessons at La Casona del Son (Home of Salsa), in a building that dates to 1715 and has been wonderfully restored. If you’re looking to explore the nightlife scene in Havana — or anywhere else in Cuba — it doesn’t hurt to know a little salsa. (That night, we even had some elderly locals who were eager to help us improve our salsa game at a very not-touristy bar.)
If you’d rather watch dancing than participate in it, then a must is a visit to the Habana Compas Dance (Havana Dance Company), whose studio is about 25 minutes from the city center. The entire group (almost all women) dances and plays various percussion instruments. The music blends Cuban, Spanish and African elements, while instruments can include anything from conga drums, batas and castanets to chairs. (We were told, “think ‘Stomp’ mixed with flamenco” — and that sums it up pretty well!) While the performance was lively, unique and extremely impressive, it was also great to hear that the company hosts free lessons for younger kids in the community (a common thread, we found, in the Cuban arts community).
While the whole trip meets the requirement of “support for the Cuban people” by visiting locally owned restaurants, art galleries and other establishments, if you really want to see a direct impact, be sure to include a visit to Head Start Pre-School for Disadvantaged Students. Here, roughly 150 two-to-five-year-olds, who come from challenging home environments, go to class for free. Everyone in the group brought crayons, markers, paper and Halloween chocolate (a favorite of the kids). The school also teaches kids from five to 17 English and music. This was the first thing we did after landing in Havana and it was definitely a great way to ground us for the trip.
Habana Compas Dance is known to combine dance and percussion. // Photo: Matt Turner
Another of our favorite experiences was stopping by Dador (meaning “Giver”), a brand-new clothing shop run by three women. We had the chance to talk with Lauren Fajardo, one of the owners / founders about what it’s like to be a young entrepreneur in Cuba (the short answer is it’s definitely tough). One such challenge: Due to the embargo, the trio can only stock up on textiles while they travel — and there’s only so much they can bring back with them, meaning they work with a very limited supply. On the first floor of the store you can browse women’s and men’s clothes on display (all lovely), while upstairs is where they create every article they make. There really isn’t anything else like this operation in Cuba and due to the size of the team and cost of the supplies, the prices, for Cubans, gets pretty high, but Fajardo says they do their best to offer less expensive items so their clothing isn’t something exclusively for tourists.
No trip to Cuba is complete without taking a spin in a classic convertible car. Cultural Cuba arranged our ride at sunset, which allowed for the best views from the Malecón and for the best lighting for professionally taken photos. That’s right — a legitimate photoshoot (hello, Instagram!). The photographer took a variety of solo and group shots in, around (and on) the car before driving alongside us in a van, snapping photos as we drove down the Malecón. Needless to say, this was a big hit. Good to know: Cultural Cuba can also arrange for a photographer to join your group at any point during your trip.
Where to Stay
The top luxury accommodation in Havana is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. The hotel is right on the border of Old Havana and Central Havana, meaning it’s a great jumping-off point for exploring the city.
Our favorite spot at the hotel is the rooftop pool and bar, with 360-degree views of the city. The top sight is El Capitolio (the National Capitol Building), just a few blocks over. Directly across the street is another impressive edifice: The international wing of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). While this portion of the museum can’t quite compete with other international museums, the array of Cuban arts is very impressive; the collections ranges from colonial through modern times.
There are six F&B venues at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, ranging from all-day dining restaurants to cocktail and tobacco bars. If you wish to sample Cuban rum, head to Constantine Bar, where bartenders sling rum-inspired cocktails, served alongside tapas dishes complemented by live music each evening. Evocación is the tobacco lounge, headed by a two-time Habano-Sommelier world champion.
We stayed in one of the Patio Rooms, which offers more space than the Deluxe or Gran Deluxe Rooms. Like all the rooms, it had high ceilings, French windows, a working area and flat-screen smart TV; it also has a large, walk-in shower with a separate bathtub. Views from the Patio Rooms are of the interior courtyard, while Deluxe and Gran Deluxe Rooms have city views. The hotel also has several suites, with the Suite Presidential Lorca being the top option; this room has a separate living and dining space and plenty of windows with city views.
Note: The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is on the Office of Foreign Assets Control Restricted List. Americans are not able to book this hotel directly; however, Cultural Cuba’s rooms were grandfathered in before the list was created, so staying at this hotel through them is legal.
La Reserva Vedado has 11 rooms, each with a different layout and design. Shown here is the Presidente Junior Suite.
Another option, should you prefer a more boutique, independently owned property, is La Reserva Vedado. The “Casa Particular” was built in 1914 and renovated and opened in 2016. It has just 11 rooms, each with a different layout and design. We were told that, due to the all-king bed setup, most of the hotel’s guests are couples but our group booked the whole property, meaning it could be great for groups or even families. We loved the retro and antique furniture found in all of the rooms (which also had double-height ceilings, air conditioning and large bathrooms). Good to know: La Reserva does not have any TVs. We enjoyed our Vedado Junior Suite but the two Garden Suites are the top options.
The hotel also has a 24/7 bar and restaurant, which has outdoor seating in the back of the casa. The only meal we had at the hotel was breakfast but the array of fresh fruits (and fruit juices) was fantastic. A standout feature at La Reserva is the impressive collection of art found throughout the property. And if any piece catches your eye? It’s available for purchase.
Where to Eat
As we discovered, Havana has a very impressive culinary scene — although many of its top restaurants didn’t exist even a decade ago. In addition to Cuban Art Factory, some top dining options include 5 Sentidos, San Juan Bar & Grill and La Guarida, all of which are “paladares” (privately owned restaurants). At 5 Sentidos, we loved the semi-open kitchen, allowing you a peek at all the chefs and cooks at work. Dishes are beautifully plated upscale versions of local fare. One fun activity that Cultural Cuba planned for us at San Juan Bar & Grill was getting us behind the bar to work with the bartender to create our own mojitos (although he was happy to show our group how to make a daiquiri or any other cocktail we fancied). Anyone who has seen the movie Fresa y Chocolate (“Strawberry and Chocolate”), will recognize the building where La Guarida now resides. The food and drinks here were amazing (Tip: Order the smoked marlin tacos and the suckling pig).
Following our dinner at La Guarida, Cultural Cuba took our group up a few spiral staircases to the restaurant’s rooftop, where a local band was waiting to play a private show for us. Led by violinist William Roblejo, the William Roblejo Trio (also including an acoustic guitarist and stand-up bassists), plays music that blends bluegrass, Cuban son and Cuban jazz. It was one of the best live, musical performances we’ve ever seen, and a stand-out activity.
Two bars that you need to visit in Havana are El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. The former is well-known for its daiquiris and was a top pick for Ernest Hemingway during his years in Cuba; the latter is the birthplace of the mojito (although it’s mis-attributed as being another popular hangout for Hemingway). Good to know: El Floridita is diagonally across the street from Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, while La Bodeguita is barely 10 minutes walking from the hotel.
Where Else to Go
If your trip to Cuba is four days or fewer, we suggest sticking just to Havana — the city has so much to offer, it’s best to fully immerse yourself here and experience as much as you can. If you’re looking to plan a trip of five days or more, day trips outside of the city are a definite possibility. (And if you want to visit the far eastern side of the city, home to Santiago and Guantánamo Bay, Cultural Cuba recommends at least 10 days in order to create an itinerary that doesn’t include any repeat stops.)
Some day trips from Havana include: Las Terrazas National Park and Biosphere Reserve, home to Cuba’s only canopy tour and the earliest surviving coffee plantations in Cuba; Finca Tungasuk, an organic farm where guests can volunteer alongside Cuban farmers; Veradero, home to some of the best beaches on the island, as well as 21 bridges (including The Bridge of Bacunayagua, offering views from 350 feet above a valley); and Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to towering limestone mountains and tobacco farms.
Beyond day trips, some of the top destinations in Cuba include Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad. Both offer a very different take on Cuban culture than Havana, and both are heavily rooted in music. The Sierra Madre mountains offer great hiking trails.
Tips: American credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so bring plenty of cash. Cultural Cuba’s itineraries include lodging, a full-time guide and driver, every activity on the itinerary, breakfast at the hotels and visas (as well as gratuities, although we recommend giving more for the guide and driver). Cultural Cuba can include all meals in the price, too, although this isn’t common (with the exception of large groups).
At the Taller Experimental de Grafica, one can spot old printing machines, plus works of artists.// Photo: Matt Turner
You can confer with Cultural Cuba when planning your trip to determine the proper amount of money to bring with you but we might recommend bringing even more than that — it won’t be difficult to find yourself returning with a few new art pieces, some rum and a box of cigars.
Before our trip, Cultural Cuba suggested we watch The Cuba Libre Story, an eight-part documentary on Netflix. It provided great detail of the country’s history from the time of Christopher Columbus and slavery through Fidel Castro’s revolution and modern Cuban life until 2016. It was very insightful and provided the groundwork for our knowledge of the island before even setting foot there. If you have the time, we absolutely recommend checking it out, as it will definitely enhance your appreciation of Cuba and its people.
Luxury travel advisors can contact Cultural Cuba founder and owner, David Lee, at [email protected], although he recommends also including [email protected] on the e-mail. Lee speaks with every advisor (and their clients, if they want) for each booking to help customize the trip. It’s recommended to book 60 to 90 days in advance.